The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Trouble in store

In issue 2013/3 we reported on two unlisted buildings which, despite making positive contributions to their respective conservation areas, were slated for demolition. Here is a similar story, but this time it has a happier ending.

Cofferidge Close was built between 1970 and 1976 by Milton Keynes Development Corporation: a mixed-use scheme linking the High Street with Silver Street. It consists of shops, a small food store, offices, houses and flats with associated car parking. It lies in the Stony Stratford Conservation Area, one centred on the high street of this historic settlement which had its heyday as a market and coaching town in the 18th century. It was one of several surrounding towns and villages that came within the redevelopment area allocated to the MKDC when the new town was being developed. It has a number of listed buildings and a wide variety of architectural styles and materials. Into this mixed setting the MKDC inserted a very modern scheme that contrasted strikingly with the vernacular, thoughtfully designed to blend into the existing townscape of Stony Stratford while referencing and incorporating the New Town architecture of Milton Keynes. It has a strong horizontal emphasis and colonnading which reinforces the connection with the new town, while also using local materials, such as red bricks, which reference the old.

The entire scheme was assessed in 2012 and the houses and flats at 7-23 Silver Street were listed at Grade II – only the second building in modern Milton Keynes to be added to the statutory list. Despite being an integral part of the original scheme, the shops and offices were excluded from designation due to recent alterations, mostly involving the High Street elevation. However, the listing record specifically mentions the unity of the scheme in the reasons for designation. We were dismayed when an application was submitted for a big supermarket on the site.

This application proposed the loss of a considerable portion of the original Cofferidge Close scheme, replacing it with a building totally out of scale with its surroundings. We objected strongly, our concern being that such a change would destroy the remaining legibility between the listed and unlisted portions of the original, causing substantial harm to the setting of the listed building and the loss of a positive contributor to the conservation area.

The design of the new building clearly failed to reference the architecture of the listed buildings, and was overwhelming in scale. The retained parts of the old orchard – an integral part of the Cofferidge Close scheme – would have been lost to car parking and, to the consternation of residents, the listed archway was proposed as a service entrance for the supermarket’s deliveries. The landscape context was sufficiently important for English Heritage to have noted in their designation report on Silver Street that ‘post-war landscapes are particularly vulnerable and sensitive to change and Cofferidge Close is no exception.’ The totality of the original scheme – its massing and design and the landscaping surrounding it – was critical to the setting of the listed buildings in Silver Street, and would have been severely compromised by the proposed development. Fortunately, Milton Keynes Council agreed with our objections, and those of English Heritage and the local ‘Save Cofferidge Close’ action group, and refused permission. Although the applicants appealed against the decision, to everyone’s delight the planning inspector dismissed the appeal.

This decision has wider implications as in his decision the planning inspector found that ‘the proposal would be harmful to the character and appearance of the Stony Stratford Conservation Area and the setting of the Listed Building at Nos. 7-23 Silver Street.’ This is significant, as it was his first and main reason for dismissing the appeal. The importance of a listed building’s setting as a material consideration in planning decisions has been reinforced recently in case law relating to wind farms, but citing the character and appearance of the conservation area adds another precedent that could well be important for future cases.

By acknowledging in his report that Cofferidge Close ‘successfully sought to introduce commercial and residential development, with car parking, into a historic town centre and conservation area’, the inspector confirmed the contribution of 1970s architecture to a conservation area of very mixed eras. This case shows that 20th century architecture can be a valuable part of the varied townscape of English towns.

Clare Price